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Trump meets with Martin Luther King III on Monday to discuss voting rights

President-elect Donald Trump after speaking to the media at Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 13. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
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President-elect Donald Trump, who spent the weekend engaged in a war of words with civil rights activist and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), met Monday with Martin Luther King III to discuss voting rights.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest son came to Trump Tower with a handful of colleagues affiliated with the Drum Major Institute, a progressive public policy think tank where he is president. After it ended, he told reporters there they had a “constructive” discussion.

“It is very clear that the system is not working at its maximum” when it comes to voter participant, he said, and Trump said repeatedly “that he is going to represent all Americans… I believe that’s his intent. I believe we have to consistently engage with pressure, public pressure. It doesn’t happen automatically, my father and his team understood that, did that.”

President-elect Donald Trump meets with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, at Trump Tower. (Video: The Washington Post)

The private session at Trump Tower with civil rights advocates, on the same day the nation is honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, represented a mix of symbolism and substance. King III has campaigned for years to establish a form of free government photo identification that could make it easier for Americans who lack a driver’s license or other official ID to cast ballots. He and the other attendees, including the Rev. James A. Forbes, have urged Trump to endorse the idea of making such identification free.

But it also provided Trump, who is viewed largely in unfavorable terms by African Americans, with an opening to the black community. In national exit polling in November, black voters favored Hillary Clinton over Trump by a margin of 89 percent to 8 percent.

Trump’s long, difficult relationship with African Americans

Trump tweeted Monday: “Celebrate Martin Luther King Day and all the many wonderful things that he stood for. Honor him for the great man that he was!”

Speaking on NBC’s “Today Show” before the meeting, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said, “Today, President-elect Trump is going to sit down with Martin Luther King III and others in New York and have a conversation about voting, about bringing more people into the system, the legacy of Dr. King and how we can continue to pursue that under the Trump administration.”

Many African American leaders see the distribution of a free government ID as a critical boost to low-income Americans who cannot open a bank account without one. The lack of an ID not only makes it more difficult to vote in several states, but it also often makes individuals dependent on check-cashing operations that charge high commissions.

In a letter to Trump, former U.N. ambassador and civil rights activist Andrew Young, who was invited to attend but had a scheduling conflict in Nashville, wrote that when he and others have pressed for the change, “I always ask who could possibly be opposed to such a common sense solution and receive only one answer: check cashers. A photo ID card is truly a freedom card.”

According to one of the meeting’s participants, who asked for anonymity to discuss a private conversation, Trump expressed a serious interest in making photos available on Social Security cards and said he would study the issue in further detail.

Forbes began the meeting with a prayer about healing the nation, which Trump participated in, the person said.

King III, who had urged the Obama administration to make a government photo ID ubiquitous, invited Trump on Jan. 8 to commemorate his father’s birthday by accompanying him on a visit to his memorial on the Mall. Instead, Trump’s aides suggested that they meet at Trump Tower.

All of the meeting attendees have a connection to the Drum Major Institute, which pledges to carry “forward the nonviolent social change legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by promoting economic justice, building community, and fostering a global culture of civil and human rights.” Forbes is its chairman; William Wachtel, a New York lawyer, co-founded the institute; and Scott Rechler, a board member who is the chief executive and chairman of RXR Realty, also attended the session.

Young, who spoke to Trump by phone during the meeting, made a point of praising Lewis during the discussion. In the letter he sent to the president-elect beforehand, he said he thought the meeting should go ahead because the invitation was offered “before the regrettable exchange between you and my friend John Lewis.”

“The first rule of Kingian nonviolence is that you can never find common ground without conversation,” he added.

Speaking to reporters about Trump’s dispute with Lewis, King III said, “First of all I think that in the heat of emotion a lot of things get said on both sides” and that Lewis and others could serve as bridge builders over time. “The goal is to bring America together and Americans.”

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post last week, King III noted that Trump won in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where minority turnout declined and stricter voter identification requirements may have deterred some minorities from voting.

“While we can’t know how those affected would have voted, we can agree that every citizen should have the unfettered opportunity to vote,” he wrote. “Indeed, my concern is not how people vote, but simply that they vote.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, seven states have strict photo ID laws — voters lacking such identification can only cast provisional ballots — and eight have less-stringent photo ID requirements.

King III, along with Young, has proposed that the Social Security Administration place a photo on the cards they give every citizen or that the State Department waive the $55 passport fee for low-income Americans.

“Many people are concerned that our new president could undo much of what the outgoing president has achieved,” King III wrote in the op-ed. “But in the area of voting rights, I am the opposite of concerned; I am hopeful in recognition that there is an opportunity to build a better system.”

Several prominent Democrats, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have endorsed the idea. But some — such as Lewis — have argued that it might leave Americans more vulnerable to data theft. And libertarians, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), also oppose a universal government ID.

Proponents of the voter card emphasize that it will be voluntary, rather than universal, and said it represents a rational response to the fact that voter ID laws are poised to proliferate given Republicans’ recent gains on the state and federal level.

“We’re going to end up with more and more voter ID laws,” said American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein. “And that’s a reality, and the question pragmatically is, what is the best way to deal with it?”

Ornstein noted that looking at minority turnout in the 2016 presidential election results, “It was down more in states with strict laws than in states without it. That’s pretty clear evidence that these laws are aimed to suppress votes.”

Wendy R. Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, said in an email that the idea of a free government ID would theoretically resolve the dispute that has divided the parties in the past.

“My reservation is practical: no state has succeeded in providing free and accessible IDs to those without them, even when they have tried,” Weiser said. “Our system is not set up well for that.”

John Wagner contributed to this report.